We’re commemorating Father’s Day with an exploration of moai, the mighty megalithic sculptures of Easter Island that represent high-ranking ancestors. The tradition of carving moai flourished between 900 and 1500 CE and their seemingly impossible production mystified the first Dutch explorers to reach the island in 1722. Modern experiments have cleared up some of the mystery of their mounting, but suggest that their construction ultimately took an unsustainable toll on the environment. Keep reading to find out how. 1. The Nitty-Gritty: Nearly 900 moai have been catalogued on the island, in erected, toppled, and incomplete states. The average erected moai stood 13 feet tall and weighed around 10 tons, although one particularly gargantuan one in the quarry measured 70 feet tall and 270 tons. Carved of soft volcanic tufa, the moai had inlaid white coral eyes and stood on platforms called ahu. Ahu grew out of an existing architectural tradition of Eastern Polynesia, where platforms supported temples.
2. Colossal Competition: The moai represented the forebears of the island’s chieftains, and were thought to contain their mana, or divine spiritual power. They marked the burial grounds of each chief’s clan, reflecting the island’s social division into a number of competitive groups. This competition becomes apparent in some of the later moai, which were topped with a feature called a pukao. Weighing up to 12 tons and made of red scoria, the crown-like cylinder demonstrates a desire to outdo other islanders by marking the moai as even more impressive.
3. Precarious Production: The most convincing theory for moving the moai from the quarry to the ahu involves the use of “canoe ladders,” parallel wooden rails joined by fixed wooden crosspieces over which the moai would be dragged. 40 people could move an average-sized statue, but 300-400 additional adults would be needed to provide food, cordage, and supplies. Given that the entire population of Easter Island was estimated to be around 9,000, these operations were an enormous strain. By 1600, all of the island’s timber had been felled to roll the monuments into place and to make the ropes required to drag them. It has been suggested by scholars such as Jared Diamond that making moai was a key to the collapse of society on Easter Island.
Image Source and Further Reading:
Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. London: Penguin Books, 2005
Bell, Julian. Mirror of the World: A New History of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007.
Phaidon Press. The Art Museum. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2011.